On advocacy : between identity and issues

In every advocacy movement I have ever been part of the had been a tension between identity and issues. As much as anything else if it’s the balance between the two that helps to define the form and impact of any movement.

Some movements are about identity.   They are about the confirmation of “who we are”  and the importance of that identity.   Normally in those movements there is a great deal of political correctness and not much tolerance for deviation.   People who step outside accepted faith are dismissed as sell-off or traitors. Even when things are not working,  when the changes you say you are about are not happening,  even when your efforts seem counterproductive or even self destructive a movement based on identity tends to be rigid and unresponsive to circumstances.   A great deal of their time is spent preaching to the choir and wondering why the choir never seems to be as big as they think it should be.

Identity movements tend to have a boogeyman,  a conspiracy of some sort that prevents the “truth”  they represent from being recognized and being given the importance they think it deserves.  Their focus on the enemy helps to give them cohesion and purpose.   For them advocacy is most often seen in terms of war and battle.   It is about beating the “bad guys.”   It is not about finding common ground as much as it is about making sure your ground prevails.

Movements based on issues are based more on results.   They have something they want,  a position or point they think is important and their goal is to make that point of view,  that formulation become as much reality as possible.   Their focus is on connections and coalitions. They don’t think preaching to the choir is as important as the identity people.   They think the critical part of advocacy is not what you say to people who already agree with you but how you convince those that don’t.

When they conflict the identity people think the issues people lack scruples or commitment to principle.   They seem them as diluting the message.   The issues people see the identity people as lacking good sense.   They are them as being ineffective,  as being more invested in making a point rather than making an impact.

Movements need both.   Movements that are simply about identity tend to become split into factions.  They tend to become inconsequential and irrelevant.   Their boundaries with the rest of the world become more rigid and the concern becomes more not being polluted by outside influences than about the influence you have on the outside.  Sometimes members find those movements dangerous places.  There is a lot of struggle for status and little tolerance for deviance.

Movements based simply on issues I think lack passion.  Who you are is important.   A lot of the power of your position is based on your moral witness.   You do need to be able to connect with others.   Unless there is an awful lot of people naturally drawn to your cause the lack of numbers will in the end often lay waste to the difference you want to make.   But your ability to stand with others is predicated in part by what you stand for.  

In balance I don’t think that issues and identity need conflict.   Often they seem to though.   I  have been part of movements that I think have gotten out of balance on both ends.   I have been l part of movements that prize their difference so much,  their identity,  that they make little of the difference they want to make.   I have also been part of movements that are so pragmatic oriented that sometimes people have wondered if lost touch with the moral compass underneath our efforts.   There is never an easy answer.   I think the balance is essential but I don’t think it is ever a done deal but a continual challenge in the drive to be part of making the changes you think are important.


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